In my personal life, I don't touch this question with a 10-foot pole. But when I am asked this question as a librarian; I cannot deflect. The child is asking me as a trusted professional for an accurate and factual answer. Furthermore I am obligated to provide reliable resources to justify my answer. And herein lies my dilemma; I am supposed to affirm or deny the “realness” of a “person” whose very existence is based on faith! The potential answer to this question is as dangerous as a child asking me if Jesus Christ is “real.” Now before you guffaw or laugh at me, I understand Jesus and Santa are not the same.
But just like everyone doesn't share the same beliefs about Jesus, everyone doesn't share a universal belief in Santa. Furthermore there are many adults who would not appreciate my answering this question contrary to their beliefs especially considering I am working in a professional capacity. As a result, confirming or denying the existence of Santa (a concept totally based on faith) as a librarian, a person who is relied on to provide factual information, is a slippery slope.
I’m sure by now you are asking me, how is the belief of Santa based on faith? Well think about it, a child raised with a religious background has a belief system instilled in them that it is possible for the impossible to occur. So it is not unreasonable for them to believe in Santa. Here are a few comparisons as examples using Christianity:
- Santa, through Christmas miracles travels through the space/time continuum, to deliver presents to children via flying reindeer. Additionally, he defies the laws of matter and gravity by sliding up and down chimney flutes to gain access to houses. Jesus' birth defied the laws of biology with a virgin birth, (if you believe the biblical text) and he lives his life defying gravity by walking on water, changing the molecular composition of water into fermented fruit juice, and eliminating many medical illnesses.
- Santa has elves to help him. Jesus has angels to help him. Nobody has ever seen either elves or angels in a tangible form.
So understanding that it is possible for a child to believe in miracles, using scientific reasoning to dispute or confirm the existence of Santa is counter-productive. Of course a “safe" answer is to provide books about St. Nicholas and his charitable works and ignore the whole North Pole, reindeer, elves part. But what if the child is unsatisfied with my answer? What if they specifically want to know about Santa, Dancer , Prancer and them? I’m once again stuck.
And what about the child who asks this question, who are not raised in a house of Christian faith? Explaining how the historical St. Nicholas became a magical Santa is complicated. Because again I have to answer the question: "Is Santa real?" without the religious construct. What can I say? I can attempt to answer the question, but again any answer I give may directly conflict with a family’s belief system.
Am I saying Santa is a religious thing? No of course not! But I treat the topic of Santa with the same respect I treat religion. And out of respect, I cannot, will not, knowingly conflict a belief system. So what do I say when asked? Well my answer is not perfect, but is goes something like this:
“Believing in Santa is a personal decision. He means different things to different people. It is up to you to decide if you want to believe in him (or not,) and how you want to express your beliefs. Remember the important thing is not if you believe in Santa (or not,) but to respect the choices of others who do not share your values. Just as you wouldn’t tell your friend they are wrong because you do not like the same foods, or enjoy the same movies, you cannot disrespect your friend’s choices regarding Santa.”
At the end of the day, this may be a bad answer, a deflection, or a cop-out, but it’s the best that I can do.